Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hillary and Mitt: Studies in Political Sincerity

I met Mitt Romney in 1983 or 1984. I was working at a law firm on Wall Street, and he was looking to set up a venture capital limited partnership. I was a junior attorney, specializing in writing the agreements that the members of such partnerships would sign. Our firm helped him set up Bain & Co., which has helped him to become a richer man; I contributed to writing the agreement that created that firm. He didn't make much of an impression, one way or the other. He was your usual Wall Street Gentile -- tall, handsome, rich. I guess he made an impression, in that I do have a vague recollection of him, which is more than I can say for most of the people I met in 1984. I guess at this point he falls into the same category, in my mind, as Gary Hart, the ultimately scandal-plagued Democrat who was running for president around the same time, whose hand I shook at the Hoboken train station one day. Is Mitt Romney an honest man? A rationally (not necessarily politically) conservative judgment would be that we cannot know for sure, for lack of solid evidence; a rationally liberal judgment would be that he is not. On the rationally liberal side, we have some evidence. During the current presidential primary contest, Mitt has made a series of statements that make him sound like a liar, and a poor one at that. There is also the evidence from wealth -- the sentiment that, behind every great fortune there is a great crime. Also, whatever the media say about Mormons, in my own experience Mormons (including particularly those who live on the East Coast) are not more honest (in the simplistic sense of the term) than other people of conservative lifestyle, though they may be somewhat more inclined to pat themselves on the back for it. If anything, the implausibility of the Mormon scriptures would incline me to think that Mormons may be somewhat *less* preoccupied with truth than the average person. But I recognize that there are different kinds of Mormons, and that not all of them have a fundamentalist's orientation toward, or familiarity with, those Scriptures. What I would conclude, about Mitt, is that a rationally liberal argument for his insincerity might draw support, but not convincing support, from the fact of his Mormon roots. The rationally conservative argument would be that it may be possible to prove that he is dishonest, but doing so would require more than the occasional screwup in the heat of a political campaign. I noticed an article, in the New York Times the other day, by a guy who used to drive Mitt around. This guy was convinced of Mitt's honesty. His article called to mind that cynical saying, "Sincerity is the main thing: if you can fake that, you've got it made." A great many people are honest when they think God or someone else is watching them. The question is whether they would behave the same way, over a period of time sufficiently long to forget about God et al., if they came to believe that nobody at all was watching them, and that their handling of a certain opportunity was not even a moral test. That may never happen, if they are religious or if they spend their lives under a political spotlight. Indeed, they, themselves may not even know whether they are honest, though surely they will have an opinion on the question. So what should we conclude? In this primary election contest, this week, in Michigan, John McCain stood up and, in a painful exercise by his so-called "Straight Talk Express," told the voters of Michigan that their jobs were gone and would not be returning. This was not consistent with the dream, and McCain surely knew it. Regardless of whether he "is" an honest or straightforward person, he seems to have decided -- in this campaign, and evidently long before it -- that what works for him, personally and/or professionally, is to work toward providing people with a relatively close approximation to his actual understanding of things, in that small minority of human experiences when it behooves him to express his thoughts. John McCain probably will not, and possibly should not, be sharing his innermost "truths" with us. But on the relative and limited scale just described -- up here on the tip of the iceberg, as it were -- he seems to have understood that his Straight Talk Express would be derailed if he fibbed to the people of Michigan, and so he did not. Therefore, he lost Michigan. We have yet to see whether his gamble pays off in a backlash, in other states, against the politics-as-usual that prompted Romney to declare, in Michigan, that he would not accept the defeat of any American industry. Romney, not being a stupid man, surely realized that it's not his call -- that the defeat of American industries will be determined by factors beyond his control. But that is not what he said. And it is this instance that raises, in my mind, a question of sincerity sufficient to prompt the writing of this posting about him and Hillary. The Hillary connection has to do with the Show of Emotion. In New Hampshire, just before the primary election, Hillary -- for the first time of which I am aware -- showed, in public, a sign of what is stereotypically treated as a trait of women: she got emotional. Not very emotional. There did not appear to be any actual tears. But her face and voice were those of a woman who is getting a bit choked up. It seems that female voters loved this, and in my opinion they should; I've seen Bill get misty-eyed often enough, by now, to have a legitimate curiosity as to what Hillary would look like in that condition. It doesn't seem fair that political contests and power are such that she dare not -- not, anyway, until she or someone manages to make it seem normal for female politicians to express emotions that their male counterparts can safely express. I'm not sure how far we want to go down that road -- do we want male politicians, breaking current taboos, to feel comparably free to express violent rage? But we aren't there yet; and for present purposes, Hillary did tread onto some new ground there, and good for her. The question remains, however, whether that was a cynical move. Did Hillary, becoming desperate about pundits' predictions that she would lose New Hampshire by double digits, decide to undertake a bold experiment? She has shown such steely self-discipline, for so long, under such pressures and national spotlights, as to suggest that she probably did not show that bit of emotional upset by accident. A possible difference between her case and Romney's is that, if he is speaking cynically, he is doing so to convey a belief about something that ain't so, whereas Hillary's emotional moment, if somehow artificially contrived, seems likely to have taken us a bit closer to something that *is* so. Hillary Clinton has had grounds to cry, and to receive the nation's sympathy in the process. And not just in the receding past, when Bill was being himself. Crying about losing in New Hampshire, had she done so, would have been reasonable, and would have brought out sympathy in some who might not previously have considered themselves capable of being sympathetic to Hillary Clinton. Of course, it would have prompted disgust in others, and rightly so. Hillary Clinton is a woman who could lead the nation in a nuclear war. Let's keep it that way, at least until she ceases to be responsible for the fates of constituents. I don't know that a question about her hairdresser was the best moment to let her hair down, if you will. But it may have been sufficient for the purpose. My guess is that Hillary, alone or in consultation with Bill or other political advisors, have surely recognized that this Iron Lady routine is not always playing well. Certainly there has been a great deal of discussion, among the leading strategists within her campaign, on the question of whether and how she might reveal that she is actually a human being, to the extent that she is. (Disclosure: I will probably vote Democrat, but am presently undecided as to the specific candidate.) My speculation is that the discussion, in Hillary's head and/or among her advisors, came to the conclusion that all she really needed to do was, at some point, to take a deep breath and confront the unknown. She just had to let herself think of a certain thing -- possibly, but not necessarily, the question that was put to her -- and doing so would choke her up. It would be a gamble, and she would have to take it, and see what happened. It seems fair for Hillary to have decided to let us know that she is (probably) a human being, and that she gets upset too. It seems fair even if she decided to do it when the cameras were rolling, under conditions that she considered favorable for purposes of helping her to win the New Hampshire primary. I do not know of any candidate in this election who has forsworn the use of emotion, if emotion will help him/her win. It is also OK with me if she uses her gender -- the power of a lady's tears, as someone put it -- to counteract the gender disadvantage of being a woman in what has been a man's world (speaking, specifically, of the presidency). It does not seem likely, at present, that she will overdo it. Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton are politicians. As such, they will lie, they will fake sincerity, and they will otherwise mislead people. It is a requirement of their job. They must be able to please everyone, which is the ridiculous expectation we place upon our political leaders. They must also be able to play poker with the bad guys. We may not think it would be appropriate for your minister to tell you that you're a pig-headed idiot, even if that is what s/he is thinking, and in this sense we permit your minister to mislead you. When your wife asks if a certain dress makes her look fat, we know the proper answer. It's a question of honesty, of course, but it's also a question of priorities, and of being able to lie well when circumstances require. Sometimes the truth hurts, and sometimes hurting someone is just not within the realm of reasonable reactions. That said, John McCain's approach is more palatable to me, partly because I want to believe that some members of the political class are actually reliable, and partly because his approach seems more workable as a practical matter. If Mitt Romney cannot lovably deceive the people of America, I honestly don't know if he will have what it takes to bargain with the Chinese. Michigan bought his line; but despite his expenditures, Iowa and New Hampshire didn't, and I think a lot of others won't. By similar values, at present, Hillary is the Democratic candidate I would consider most likely to perform well in an extremely difficult role. Her claim of experience resonates with me. I won't vote against her just because she probably manipulated people with a show of emotion. It didn't look fake -- which is to say, she was doing a good job of being a politician and, at the same time, was bringing us closer to the truth (i.e., that she has feelings), rather than further away from it. McCain, in his own very different way, seems to be making the same calculation: that he has to be the straight-shooter, even if it hurts him in some states, because that's what will help him win; and in making that judgment, he, too, may help voters to become more acquainted with the realities.